Off-line surveys: successfully not losing data

Losing survey data is a pain – unfortunately the events team lost six events worth of survey data they collected using off-line surveys. The team used iPads (cost per iPad is c.£320) to conduct surveys on software which was sourced outside our team (I’m not sure what system it was). They used the software on the basis that it claimed to offer off-line surveys i.e. without an internet connection /wi-fi. The idea was that they data could then be uploaded once the iPad was connected to the internet. When they came to do so, however, the data was simply not there and they had lost it all.

The events team came to the digital team this year to ask if we could help them with the public surveys for the 2017 Harbour Festival. The festival is held across much of Bristol City Centre and therefore in order to conduct surveys digitally using iPads we would need to do so without having to rely on having a wifi connection.Of course, one option would be to conduct the surveys with good old pen and paper, but as a digital-first service we were happy to accept the challenge.

One of the main reasons we want to avoid paper surveys is because it is time consuming and difficult to digitise the survey results. It requires someone to sit at a computer and manually input results. Staff resources are often limited and this is a job we’d rather not have to give ourselves. Practically, paper can also be unruly, there are issues with handwriting legibility and they are easy to lose when relying on volunteers to collect them so a digital a solution is very desirable.

The challenge came down to finding the right software that I could install on the iPad and test, and that didn’t cost too much. Our usual platform for conducting surveys on iPads where we do have an internet connection is SurveyMonkey (we pay for the gold subscription £230 per year). Unfortunately, off-line surveys are not a feature available on SurveyMonkey.

These are a few Apps I tried to use but weren’t right for one reason or another:

  • Qualtrics – poor trialling options and expensive for full features £65 for one month or £435 for one year
  • iSurveys (harvestyourdata.com) – free account is limited and their main website is difficult to use and I couldn’t work out how much the full feature product was
  • SurveyPocket by QuestionPro – trial difficult to use and full feature pricing only available by contacting the company
  • The one I almost went for: QuickTap Survey & Form Builder – good pricing options from $16 per month and the trial is OK

So, after trawling the internet and the App Store for options the one we went for is an App called Feed2go (www.feed2go.com)

Quick Note: Before I speak about the virtues of Feed2go, I have to make it clear that it is currently only available on the Apple App Store; it is not available on Android devices in the Play Store (quicktap surveys app is available on Android).

I downloaded the feed2go App onto my iPad and and it was ready to go with pretty much all features available – certainly enough to get a feel of whether it was right. Most crucially on the basic/trial version you can conduct off-line surveys and test if the data is secure and can be successfully uploaded – we I did and it worked. A major advantage of the feed2go app is that to access all the app’s features (Pro) is a very reasonable subscription of £2.49 for 1 month; £4.99 for 3 months; or £12.49 for 1 year. At these costs there is virtually no risk in trying the Pro subscription.

If anyone is interested in trying the App, I would suggest going ahead and downloading and having an explore. There are just a couple of things I will highlight:

  • The user interface is nice and clean and easy to use
  • The options for question structures is OK and covers most bases but it is more limited than something like SurveyMonkey
  • Some of the navigation in the App can be a bit clunky especially when designing survey forms, but once you get used to it then it’s fine
  • Probably the most significant feature of feed2go to mention is trying to use the same survey on one device. This is not a particular strong suit of feed2go but it does work. Basically you need to download feed2go on each device you have and then share the survey between them using a cloud storage server – the best one to use in my experience is DropBox. In the App there is an export/import function to share survey forms between devices. This also means that you will need to collate all results from different devices at the end.
  • As noted above, the feed2go app needs to be downloaded on each iPad. In our case all our service iPads are registered to one email address. This means we can use the one subscription across all of our devices. This is not the case if iPads are registered to different email addresses – a subscription will need to be paid for each.

Overall, yes the experience of using the App could be improved a little. But, the main feature we wanted it for – to save the results and successfully upload them worked 100%. I think what distinguishes feed2go from the previously (unsuccessfully) used software was that it operated through a web browser which relied on a cache of temp internet files files. Feed2go is an app which stores the data securely in a folder in the same way the camera stores photos on the iPad. Finally, the FAQ on the feed2go and the email support for the App is great; the developer is really responsive.

We have now used the App to conduct surveys in the estate around Our Blaise Castle House Museum site and we are planning to replace paper exit surveys at our houses (where we don’t have wifi) with the offline App.

If you have any comments or questions about doing offlien surveys or surveys in the cultural sector please get in touch I’m happy to have a chat. Darren.roberts@bristo.gov.uk

Going digital with our Exhibition Scheduling Timeline

 

 

developing a digital timeline for scheduling exhibitions

BACKGROUND

Having a visual representation of upcoming exhibitions, works, and major events is important in the exhibition planning process. Rather than relying on spotting dates that clash using lists of data, having a horizontal timeline spread out visually allows for faster cross-checking and helps collaboratively decide on how to plan for exhibition installs and derigs.

 

Until recently we had a system that used excel to plan out this timeline, by merging cells and coloring horizontally it was possible to manually construct a timeline. Apart from the pure joy that comes from printing anything from Excel, there were a number of limitations of this method.

  • When dates changed the whole thing needed to be rejigged
  • Everyone who received a printed copy at meetings stuck that to the wall and so date changes were hard to communicate.
  • We need to see the timeline over different scales – short term and long term, so this means using 2 separate excel tabs for each, hence duplication of effort.
  • We were unable to apply any permissions
  • The data was not interoperable with other systems

TIMELINE SOFTWARE (vis.js)

Thanks to Almende B.V. there is an open source timeline code library available at visjs.org/docs/timeline so this offers a neat solution to the manual task of having to recast the timeline using some creative Excel skills each time. We already have a database of Exhibition dates following our digital signage project and so this was the perfect opportunity to reuse this data, which should be the most up to date version of planned events as it is what we display to the public internally in our venues.

IMPLEMENTATION

The digital timeline was implemented using MEAN stack technology and combines data feeds from a variety of sources. In addition to bringing in data for agreed exhibitions, we wanted a flexible way to add installations, derigs, and other notes and so a new database on the node server combines these dates with exhibitions data. We can assign permissions to different user groups using some open source authentication libraries and this means we can now release the timeline for staff not involved in exhibitions, but also let various teams add and edit their own specific timeline data.

The great thing about vis is the ease of manipulation of the timeline, users are able to zoom in and out, and backward and forwards in time using with mouse, arrow or touch/pinch gestures.

 

Zoomed out view for the bigger picture
Zoomed in for the detail…

EMU INTEGRATION

The management of information surrounding object conservation, loans and movements is fundamental to successful exhibition development and installation. As such we maintain a record of exhibition dates in EMu, our collections management software. The EMu events module is used to record when exhibitions take place and also the object list where curators select and deselect objects for exhibition. Using the EMU API we are able to extract a structured list of Exhibitions information for publishing to the digital timeline.

HOW OUR TIMELINE WORKS

Each gallery or public space has its own horizontal track where exhibitions are published as blocks. These are grouped into our 5 museums and archives buildings and can be selected/deselected from the timeline to cross reference each. Once logged in a user is able ot manually add new blocks to the timeline and these are pre-set to “install”, “derig” and “provisional date”. Once a block is added our exhibitions team are able to add notes that are accessible on clicking the block. It is also possible to reorder and adjust dates by clicking and dragging.

IMPACT

The timeline now means everyone has access to an up to date picture of upcoming exhibitons installations to no one is out of date. The timeline is on a public platform and is mobile accessible so staff can access it on the move, in galleries or at home. Less time is spent on creative Excel manipulation and more work on spotting errors. It has also made scheduling meetings more dynamic, allowing better cross referencing and moving to different positions in time. An unexpected effect is that we are spotting more uses for the solution and are currently investigating the use of it for booking rooms and resources. There are some really neat things we can do such as import a data feed from the timeline back into our MS Outlook calendars  (“oooooh!”). The addition of thumbnail pictures used to advertise exhibitions has been a favorite feature among staff and really helps give an instant impression of current events, since it reinforces the exhibition branding which people are already familiar with.

ISSUES

It is far from perfect! Several iterations were needed to develop the drag and drop feature fo adding events. Also, we are reaching diminishing returns in terms of performance – with more and more data available to plot, the web app is performing slowly and could do with further optimisation to improve speed. Also due to our IT infrastructure, many staff use Internet Explorer and whilst the timeline works OK, many features are broken on this browser without changes to compatibility and caching settings on IE.

WHAT’S NEXT

Hopefully optimisation will improve performance and then it is full steam ahead with developing our resource booking system using the same framework.

 

 

Rowan Whitehouse joins the Digital Team

Hello! My name is Rowan Whitehouse and I am currently working as a cultural support apprentice for Bristol Museums.

I have been doing six week rotations around various departments, and as part of my third, with the digital team, I’ve been asked to review some of the technology around the museum.

So, to find some!

I noticed that the distribution of technology around the museum is heavier in areas with a higher number of children. Whilst there is a lot around the ground floor, particularly the Egypt and Natural History galleries, levels definitely drop off the more steps you climb, towards the Fine and Applied Arts galleries. I think this is due, in part, to many children’s interests leaning on the dinosaur/mummy side, rather than Bristol’s history of stone pub ware. Perhaps there are also certain established ideas about what an art gallery should  be, whereas many of the historic collections lend themselves well to interactive displays.

Upstairs, the technology has a distinctly more mature focus.
I chose to look at a tablet/kiosk in the European Old Masters gallery for an example. The kiosk itself fits well into its surroundings, the slim, white design is unobtrusive – something desirable in such a traditional gallery space. The kiosk serves as an extension of the wall plaques, it has an index of the paintings in the room with information on them. I think this is a great idea as the size of wall plaques often constrain the amount of information available.

A big drawback I felt however, was that the kiosk was static and fixed in one place. I observed that as people moved around the gallery they would continually look from the painting to it’s accompanying plaque, taking in both at the same time. Though the kiosk has more information, it would need to be able to move with the user to have the advantage over the plaques. On the position of the kiosk itself, I think it would receive more use if it was positioned in the middle of the room, rather than in the corner, where it is overlooked. Signage on the wall advertised a webpage, which could be accessed on a handheld device and provided the same information as the kiosk. I felt this was a better use of the index, and could be made even easier to access via a QR code. I wonder though, if people would want to use their phones like this in a gallery, and whether ideas about the way we experience art are the ultimate obstacle. I’ll be researching how other institutions use (or don’t use) technology in their galleries.

I wanted to see how technology is being used differently with the historic collections, so I headed back downstairs to the Egypt gallery. I observed a school group using the computers at the back of the gallery, both the children and their teacher struggled with the unusual keyboard layout and rollerball mouse, unable to figure out how to search. Eventually, they came upon it by chance, and enjoyed navigating the images and learning more about the objects in the gallery. The computers also have a timeline view, showing the history of the Egyptians, and an “Explore” function, where specific subjects could be looked at.

I think the location of the units massively benefit interaction, the dedicated space with chairs really invite and encourage visitors to engage. On using the technology, I felt that the access problems could be easily fixed by some stickers highlighting the left mouse button function, and something to resolve the stiffness of the rollerball.

My favourite interactive pieces in the museum were in the Egypt gallery. I loved the screens that featured the discovery of  a body, and asked the user what they thought about the body being in a museum, and gave the user the option of viewing the body at the end of the text. I felt like this type of interaction was fantastic, and rather than just providing information, engaged the visitor directly and was a great way of broaching questions that may not usually occur to visitors.

I’m looking forward to the next six weeks, and learning more about digital engagement in museums.

With such a fantastic collection, it’s exciting finding new ways of presenting it and helping visitors interact with objects

New locker alert

Photo showing grey lockers

Adding additional lockers to our museums is a top 5 request from the public and staff alike. On Wednesday the 20th September we installed new lockers at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and M Shed.

Until this week we only had 8 lockers at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery which is not exactly lots when you have 400,000 plus visits. At both museums the lockers have been finished in a suitable RAL colour way. We’ve introduced a £1 non-refundable fee which will initially re-pay the cost of lockers then be used to support our work. Slow money but sure money.

The main considerations for lockers are:

  • Custom brand colours
  • Coin retention lockers
  • The number of doors per locker – 2, 3 or 4 (more lockers more money but less useful if size is important)
  • installation
  • Location in the building
  • Disclaimers and cost messaging

The install didn’t quite go to plan. I asked for lockers. I got lockers. However I also needed the following which I hadn’t specified:

  • Numbered lockers – inserts so that the public can remember which locker they used
  • Numbered key fobs – the public need to know which key they have
  • Nuts and bolts – to connect each locker together and to the wall to eliminate the chance for the locker to tip over

I purposely located a bank of lockers in the corridor so that they’ll be in the sightline of visitors to the front hall. Previously the lockers were tucked away and a constant frustration for visitors. Regular readers will know one of my favourite quotes “Address the user need and the business need will be clear”.

Retail will be responsible for collecting the income with this new welcome income stream.

I was chuffed when one of our Visitor Assistants said “I’ve been here over 10 years and never thought I’d see the day we added extra lockers”.

If you remember to address the bullet points above you’ll have a smooth installation. Good luck.

Results of running a shop in the front hall

Photo of our front hall shop

Just before summer started I wrote about taking the plunge having an additional small shop in the front hall at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery throughout the summer. Summer is over and so is our shop, for now. This post is a summary of performance. In short, the shop was worth doing with the following results:

  • 10% of total sales for the month or £5,300 net sales
  • 939 orders
  • 2% conversion (confirmed it was additional sales not just taking sales from main shop)
  • Same ATV as main shop despite selling far fewer products
  • Staffing costs were covered by moving the second retail assistant from the main shop
  • £400 on a whacking huge shop sign (pictured) and a few units to supplement existing available units
  • Answered countless public enquiries

I would have been kicking myself if we hadn’t tried to push the retail needle and i’m glad we did. We had our most successful month on record and met our income target. The front hall shop helped us over the line in this respect. We started on day 1 of the school summer holiday without much of a plan other than a hunch the products should be suitable for kids and tourists. Over the course of the project we chopped and changed the products as the teams powers of observation dictated.

Staffing

Finding staff at short notice proved to be a challenge with a few moments but fortunately the team including our brilliant casual pool came to the rescue. I asked the team for feedback throughout the project. Everyone on the front hall shop said they enjoyed the shifts and kept busy in the quiet periods by pricing and preparing products. As expected they also answered lots of public enquiries and raised awareness of our retail offer. The main shop coped with having one person instead of two but this made their work full-on and its much appreciated. We will use the feedback to see how we can better ease the load in the coming year, especially dealing with deliveries.

Product selection

We used the existing products from our range and started with best sellers with a Bristol theme. We thought this would appeal to the tourists. However the Bristol theme didn’t really push the needle so we switched to more ‘kids’ and ‘home’ which proved successful.  I really wanted to try a selection of jewellery but the hall is used frequently for evening events so we decided this could wait until a future project.

Positive fringe benefits

We don’t have staff permanently in our front hall anymore so having staff here was good for the public enquiries. The hall is large and having visitors milling around the shop gave a nice vibe to the space. Staff received lots of positive comments about the offer and many said they’d be back for Christmas shopping. Some visitors completely miss the fact we have a shop so this made sure 100% knew we had an offer.

Next time

I have decided that the front hall shop should come back at high visitor times so October half-term and then from late November until the end of the school holidays. We need to plan the range further in advance and be very mindful that December is peak evening event season so everything must be easily movable. We did indeed push the needle.

Onwards!

Pushing the needle: a shop in our fron thall

Photo of front hall shop on day 1

Each year until at least 2022 we need to grow our retail revenue and profitability by 10% or greater. At Bristol Museum & Art Gallery our retail is typical of the sector in converting about 10% of visitors into shoppers. For us, this will not be enough to do what we need to do. But we must hit our target.

To work out if you have any hope of making your target you need to do a little maths:

  • Divide the total number of visitors by the expected number of shoppers to get your conversion rate e.g 10%
  • Take your expected Average Transaction Value (ATV) and multiple this by your conversion rate to get a baseline amount of sales revenue you expect to generate – remember sales are not profit
  • Take your baseline expected sales and divide by the expected visitor numbers to get your Spend Per Head (SPH)

The problem should be obvious…. an average is basically an assumption that IF A + B + C happens then success!

It is good to have a working set of data, averages and assumptions to use as a baseline but we can’t run our retail on assumptions and need to try everything to maximise sales. I know that to have more confidence in our programme we need to keep poking the box to try to positively increase our conversion and thus sales.

The best way to get the conversion up to is raise awareness to the visitor that we have a shop offer and try to affect behaviour. Our front hall has 100% of our visitors passing through.

During the summer holiday we’re testing the idea that more exposure should increase sales by introducing a small shop located in the front hall. This project will inform our future plans for growing the retail business which may include moving the location of the main shop.

The outline business case is below:

  1. A visually attractive retail offer located in the front hall will undoubtedly increase awareness of a retail offer in the Museum. Although improvements have been made to the entrance of the main shop including introducing a large bookstand and jewellery stand, some visitors still miss the retail offer. This project will hopefully encourage impulse buying and whilst signposting to the main shop either now or for Christmas.
  2. As an example we used a pop up shop for Chinese New Year which increased sales by 18% on the previous year 2015-2016. This also avoided the big queues in the shop and congestion in the entrance and exit in the shop which aids the visitor experience
  3. There will be almost no investment costs, as we already have the equipment needed to set up a small shop.
  4. Staff costs will be met using the current budget by moving the second retail assistant to the front hall. The downside of course will be less ability to deal with deliveries and some customers who want assistance.
  5. The shop in the front hall will be open daily during summer school holidays 24th July -1st September and be mobile enough to be able to close and move for any evening events.
  6. The space taken for the shop would measure 9ft (2.7 mtrs) by 11ft (3.4 mtrs).
  7. Meeting the potential for growth – going on last year’s August figs of ATV at £6.18 an increase of 5% conversion could lead to an increase £10,000.
  8. Hopefully a secondary benefit is that this will reduce queue pressure on the main shop
  9. Use the opportunity to engage the visitors about our cafe and exhibition Pliosaurus

So how did we do the first week?

Sales in the front hall accounted for 13% of sales. The first two days we were finding our feet so i’d expect this to increase in the coming week. At this stage we can’t tell if this has simply taken a share of the main shop’s sales or increased sales overall… we need to compare a few data sources and experiment with the product range…. watch this space!

How to get rid of VGA after 30 years!

Here at the M Shed in Bristol, we have amazing views of the harbor from our lovely events suit. Here we hold all sorts of events from large annual AGMs for corporations’, to weddings and some really great community events.

 

We have a fully automated integrated audio visual system. With AMX and Creston control systems, you can walk around the function rooms holding a smart, touch screen control panel and control just about everything! You can power up the projectors, lower the screens, open and shut the blinds, control volumes, select what to display from Sky TV, Blu-ray players and laptops, you can even change the lighting to any colour scheme you want.

 

It’s all pretty smart. Pretty smart apart from the dreaded Video Graphics Array as the main interface, more commonly referred to as the VGA connector! For all this advanced technology, presenters still have to connect their devices with a cable.
The VGA standard was invented in 1987 by IBM, and its dreaded 15 pin D Sub connector still to this day refuses to go away.
Until now…

 
There’s something amiss when a presenter asks to use their nice, brand new iPad to run their presentation and you then have to use a lighting port to VGA adapter connected to 10 meter VGA cable. These VGA connectors were designed for permanent installation and so when they are swapped between laptop and other devices several times a day, the 15 tiny pins take a battering and it only takes one bent pin for the screen to go pink, blue or stop all together.

Here comes the ingenious solution to take advantage of the wireless / Wi-Fi capabilities that are now standard for all devices.

The idea and solution comes in the form of finding a combination of ready available, off the shelf technology combined in such a way it allows the transmission of a device’s screen to appear on our projection system, without any wires. We needed this to be augmented into our current system without affecting its current capabilities. It is already a great intergraded AV system, it’s just needs to be brought into the future without losing its ability to use the old VGA system. It may be old but it works so well as a last resort and backup.

Apple products long ago ditched the VGA system in favour of min-display ports or “lighting ports”. A quick trip to any Apple store and an assistant will enthusiastically show how with a flick of the devices, a display can be “thrown” to another screen. It’s called Air Play and is Apple’s secure version of Wi-Fi streaming.

Google, with their ever innovative developments, have developed a technology called Chrome Cast to the same effect, which is also based on Wi-Fi streaming.

With delegates at our events bringing Apple products, PCs and android devices, we needed an all in one system; so purchased these products to enable this streaming. I ordered an Apple TV and a Chrome Cast device which both work by connecting to a Wi-Fi network and looking for compatible devices. Both of these provide a solution for all devices. Chrome Cast is much cheaper than Apple TV and can support Apple products too, but the ease of use and reliability of Apple on Apple products seemed worth the extra investment. I calculated the cost of replacement VGA cables and at the current rate we replace them, these new items would pay for themselves in just three years!

The main issue I faced in integrating these was how to patch them into a fully automated, closed AV system without affecting its capabilities. In essence, how to “retrofit” an Apple TV and Chrome Cast and get the systems to talk over M Shed’s Wi-Fi – a public network, effectively part of the councils IT network and heavily locked down.
To solve the first issue, I had to literally climb into the AV racking system to find a suitable part that interfaced with an HDMI connector (both Chrome Cast and Apple TV use HDMI). I chose our SKY TV box and unplugged its HDMI cable. Onto this cable I place a HDMI switcher, which allows 4 inputs to connect as one. The switcher is the sort of device you would buy if your TV at home only has one HDMI port and you had multiple devices you wanted to connect: a DVD player, games console and a Freeview box. I then connected the Sky box to the switcher along with the Apple TV and Chrome Cast unit. Then after finding power outlets, whilst still inside the AV systems rack, I carefully slid the switcher unit so its control switch faced out the front of the rack. A few cables ties and some Velcro later and the hardware was installed, all that was left to do was to climb out and check it all worked.

Going back to the Creston AV touch panel, I selected Sky TV and sure enough it appeared on the projections screen as it should. Then by using the controls on the switcher unit I was able to toggle between Sky, Apple TV and Chrome Cast.
It then occurred to me that both the Apple and Chrome devices use the HDMI to output their audio too. However the HDMI feeds to the projector which only projects the image, so audio would be lost. Climbing back into the AV rack, I noticed that the Sky box was using analog RCA connectors to output its audio to integrated ceiling speaker system. Fortunately the switcher also had 3.5mm TRS output (headphone socket), so by setting the Sky box to output audio through its HMDI it meant that all three devices were now feeding the audio and visual signal to the switcher. Then by using the RCA connector from the Sky box with the TRS adapter, all three devices were now feeding to the ceiling speaker system. I climbed back out of the rack and started to create a new, independent Wi-Fi network for devices to communicate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new Wi-Fi network was actually the simpler part.
I purchased an ASUS RT-AC3200 Tri-Band Giga-Bit Wi-Fi router. This router is enormous with six aerials and looks like the Batmobile. I figured that it would have to be reliable and be able to cope with large amount of data traffic, so I got the most powerful but cost effective router I could find.

The idea behind the router was to have all the devices (Apple TV, Chrome Cast and whichever device is streaming) all on the same network, a network I could manage. Once on the same network, it was a matter of connecting. The Apple system was really straight forward- you join the same Wi-Fi network as the Apple TV (I named the network “presentations”) then chose the Airplay option on the device and as easy as that the screen is mirrored on the projector. The Chrome set up was a little more involved. With an android device, you have to install an app called Chrome Cast. Once installed it’s quite straight forward to pair with the Chrome Cast receiver and then the screen can be mirrored on the projector. With a Windows PC laptop, I had to install the latest version of Chrome. This then comes with the option to cast either just the browser tab you’re using or the whole desktop -this works well but compared to the Apple TV there is a slight lag. In some instances you would have to install the Chrome Cast extension for Chrome.

I also connected the Wi-Fi router to our open Wi-Fi system with a RJ45 cable. This then allowed people on the Presentation Wi-Fi to still be able to access the net.
We are still trialing the system before we start to officially offer it as part of a package, but so far so good. It has been received very positively from users. We’ve had people walking around with iPads – controlling their presentation and not being tied to the lectern with an old pc. We’ve even had the best man at a wedding wirelessly control the music playlist from his iPhone at the top table! PCs are still being used at the lectern as normal but without the need to trail VGA cable everywhere. The only thing left to work out is wireless power… I suppose batteries will have to do for now.

How to make two 120FT cranes talk to each other

Here at M Shed Bristol, we have some great working exhibits from the bygone era of Bristol Harbour’s industrial past: steam engines, steam boats, steam cranes and more. But the most recognisable and iconic are the four great towering electric cranes standing over 120 feet above the old docks.

As the Industrial Museum was being transformed into the present day M Shed Museum two of the cranes would strike up conversations with each other, entertaining and informing passers-by of what they could look forward to seeing inside the new museum. However due to renovations and movement of the
cranes they fell silent again…

A few years later, due to popular demand I was tasked with bringing the cranes back to life!

To get these cranes talking was going to require rebuilding the whole audio and lighting system and recording new scripts. We were fortunate enough to have Alex Rankin, from our M Shed team, lend his penning abilities for the new scripts and Jacqui and Heather to voice the new crane characters.

To record the dialogue, we arranged to meet in a nice quite corner of the L Shed store room. It’s a vast store, full of so many objects that there isn’t enough space to have them on permanent display. With both Jacqui and Heather sat at opposite ends of a table, I set up a pair of good quality condenser microphones. Each plugged into their own separate channel on my external sound card, an Akai EIE 4 channel usb sound card with great preamps and phantom powered for the mics. This in turn was hooked up to my MacBook and copy of Logic Pro. I recorded through each script a few times and was able to compile a seamless recording from the various takes. Once finished, I hard panned each channel left and right so that when each voice played back each would have its own speaker, left or right – crane 1 or crane 2.

To start building the new AV system, I searched around the vast L-Shed stores and work rooms to find what was left of the old system. I then decided what could be re used and what new equipment would be needed. I had been informed, by our volunteer team for the working exhibits, that everything had been removed from the cranes themselves; this meant starting from scratch.

The cranes themselves would need a loud speaker system for the voices and the crane cabs would need different coloured lights to flash in time with the talking as this helps to animate the cranes. That part was relatively easy. It meant scaling the cranes and bolting speakers to their underside and mounting lamps inside the cabs. I’ll be honest, I was helped by the Volunteer team and a huge mobile diesel powered cherry picker!

 

The hard part was how to feed the power and audio cables to the cranes. After some investigation it turned out that below the surface of the dockside was a network of underground pipes which lead to the base of each crane to feed their power. The great volunteer team once again worked miracles and fed over 600 combined meters of audio and lighting cables for me. This all led back to the clean room in their ground floor workshop. With all the cabling done I just needed to build a lighting control and audio playback system.

 

 

My design solution, using what kit I could find and a few new bits, was to use a solid state compact flash media player, graphic equaliser, audio mixing desk and power amplifier for the audio.  To have the light flash in time with the dialogue, I used a two light controller with a light to sound module, similar to what a DJ might use to have their disco lights flash to the music!

By having the audio go through the mixing desk, I was able to take an audio feed for each channel and direct them to lighting controllers. By recording the two voices in stereo, with each voice on its own left or right channel, it meant i only needed one media player and could easily control each channel on the sound desk. The graphic equaliser allowed me to tweak the speakers to acoustically fit their environment.

I looked at randomising the audio or having it triggered by people walking past, but with the amount of people who pass outside M Shed the cranes would be chatting away, non-stop all day! I decided to create a long audio file of about 3 hours with the different recorded scripts and random intervals of silence. These ranged from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, so it always comes as a surprise when they start talking to each other.

The results are really effective. It is always fun to see people being caught by surprise as the cranes light up and start a conversation and to see them stop and listen in on what they have to say.

 

 

How we did it: automating the retail order forms using Shopify.

*explicit content warning* this post makes reference to APIs.

THE PROBLEM:  Having set ourselves the challenge of improving the buying process  , our task in Team Digital was to figure out where we can do things more efficiently and smartly. Thanks to our implementation of Shopify, we have no shortage of data on sales to help with this, however the process of gathering the required information to place an order of more stock is time consuming – retail staff need to manually copy and paste machine-like product codes, look up supplier details and compile fresh order forms each time, all the while attention is taken away from what really matters, i.e. which products are currently selling, and which are not.

In a nutshell, the problem can be addressed by creating a specific view of our shop data – one that combines the cost of goods, with the inventory quantity (amount of stock left) in a way that factors in a specific period of time and which can be combined with supplier information so we know who to order each top selling product from, without having to look anything up. We were keen to get in to the world of Shopify development and thanks to the handy Shopify developer programme documentation & API help it was fairly painless to get a prototype up and running.

SETTING UP: We first had to understand the difference between public and private apps with Shopify.  A private app lets you hard code it to speak to a specific shop, whereas the public apps need to be able to authenticate on the fly to any shop. With this we felt a private app was the way to go, at least until we know it works!

Following this and armed with the various passwords and keys needed to programmatically interact with our store, the next step was to find a way to develop a query to give us the data we need, and then to automate the process  and present it in a meaningful way. By default Shopify provides its data as JSON, which is nice, if you are a computer.

TECHNICAL DETAILS: We set up a cron job on an AWS virtual machine running Node and MongoDB. Using the MEAN stack framework and some open source libraries to integrate with Google Sheets, and notably to handle asynchronous processes in a tidy way. If you’d like to explore the code – that’s all here. In addition to scheduled tasks we also built an AngularJS web client which allows staff to run reports manually and to change some settings.

Which translates as: In order to process the data automatically, we needed a database and computer setup that would allow us to talk to Shopify and Google Docs, and to run at a set time each day without human intervention.

The way that Shopify works means we couldn’t develop a single query to do the job in one go as you might in SQL (traditional database language). Also, there are limitations in how many times you can query the store. What emerged from our testing was a series of steps, and an algorithm which did multiple data extractions and recombination’s, which I’ll attempt to describe here. P.S. do shout if there is an easier way to do this ;).

STEP 1: Get a list of all products in the store. We’ll need these to know which supplier each product comes from, and the product types might help in further analysis.

STEP 2: Combine results of step one with the cost of goods. This information lives in a separate app and needs to be imported from a csv file. We’ll need this when we come to build our supplier order form.

STEP 3: Get a list of all orders within a certain period. This bit is the crucial factor in understanding what is currently selling. Whilst we do this, we’ll add in the data from the steps above so we can generate a table with all the information we need to make an order.

STEP 4: Count how many sales of each product type have taken place. This converts our list of individual transactions into a list of products with a count of sales. This uses the MongoDB aggregation pipeline and is what turns our raw data into something more meaningful. It looks a bit like this, (just so you know):

STEP 5: Add the data to a Google Sheet. What luck there is some open source code which we can use to hook our Shopify data up to Google. There are a few steps needed in order for the Google sheet to talk to our data – we basically have our server act as a Google user and share editing access with him, or her?. And while we are beginning to personify this system, we are calling it ‘Stockify’, the latest member of Team Digital, however Zak prefers the lofty moniker Dave.

The result is a table of top selling products in the last x number of days, with x being a variable we can control. The whole process takes quite a few minutes, especially if x >60, and this is due to limitations with each integration – you can only add a new line to a Google sheet once / second, and there are over 500 lines. The great thing about our app is that he/she doesn’t mind working at night or early in the morning, and on weekends or at other times when retail managers probably shouldn’t be looking at sales stats, but probably are. With Stockify/Dave scheduled for 7am each morning we know that when staff look at the data to do the ordering it will be an up to date assessment of the last 60 days’ worth of sales.

We now have the following columns in our Google Sheet, some have come directly from their corresponding Shopify table, whereas some have been calculated on the fly to give us a unique view of our data and on we can gain new insights from.

  • product_type: (from the product table)
  • variant_i:d (one product can have many variants)
  • price: (from the product table)
  • cost_of_goods: (imported from a csv)
  • order_cost: (cost_of_goods * amount sold)
  • sales_value: (price * amount sold)
  • name: (from the product table)
  • amount sold: (transaction table compared to product table / time)
  • inventory_quantity: (from the product table)
  • order_status: (if inventory_quantity < amount sold /time)
  • barcode: (from the product table)
  • sku: (from the product table)
  • vendor: (from the product table)
  • date_report_ru:n (so we know if the scheduled task failed)

TEST, ITERATE, REFINE:  For the first few iterations we failed it on some basic sense checking – not enough data was coming through. This turned out to be because we were running queries faster than the Shopify API would supply the data and transactions were missing. We fixed this with some loopy code, and now we are in the process of tweaking the period of time we wish to analyse – too short and we miss some important items, for example if a popular book hasn’t sold in the last x days, this might not be picked up in the sales report. Also – we need to factor in things like half term, Christmas and other festivals such as Chinese New Year, which Stockify/Dave can’t predict. Yet.

AUTOMATIC ORDER FORMS: To help staff compile the order form we used our latest Google-sheet-fu using  a combination of pick lists, named ranges and the query function to lookup all products tagged with a status of “Re-order”

A list of suppliers appears on the order form template:

and then this formula looks up the products for the chosen supplier and populates the order table:

“=QUERY(indirect(“last_60_days”&”!”&”11:685″),”select G where M='”&$B2&”‘ and J=’re-order'”)”

The trick is  for our app to check if the quantity sold in the last x days is less than the inventory quantity, in which case it goes on the order form.

NEXT STEPS: Oh we’re not done yet! with each step into automation we take, another possibility appears on the horizon…here’s some questions we’ll be asking our system in the coming weeks..

  • -How many products have not sold in the last x days?
  • -If the product type is books, can we order more if the inventory quantity goes below a certain threshold?
  • Even if a particular product has not sold in the last 60 days, can we flag this product type anyway so it gets added to our automatic order form?
  • While we are at it, do we need to look up supplier email addresses each time – cant we just have them appear by magic.

…furthermore we need to integrate this data with our CRM…..looks like we will be busy for a while longer.

 

 

 

Retail: Improving the buying process

Customers buy what they can pick from the shop floor or online catalogue. Not what is “on its way from a warehouse” or “gathering dust” on our stockroom shelf. Stock not available to the customer is therefore waste. A waste of committed money (cash flow concern which  immediately introduces risk) and a waste of space in our shop stockroom which in turns reduces overall shop floor space and slows staff looking for product.

Because “Buying” is the most critical of the four pillars of retail, it seems the sensible place to focus our attention on to gain further improvement. I’m going to challenge ourselves to use 2017-18 to maximise our buying by refining the workflow.    This will be a collaboration between me, retail, user research and our digital team.

At present we do our buying like any other retailer, we order by supplier when we feel or notice heavy product depletion. Furthermore at any one time we’re “holding” about 10% of our annual total stockholding in our stockroom and another 10% on the shop floor. If it is on the stockroom shelf it has zero chance of being sold.  In addition to having a costly quantity of product hanging around, the space used to hold our product could potentially be converted into public shop floor space. For example at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery there is a false wall which conceals our stockroom which is about 8m in length with a depth of 1.4m. If we’re about to improve how we buy, it is possible to push this wall back further and gain that space as public floor space that could be used for 2-4 nesting tables worth £10,000+. The challenge of course is that would reduce our total stockroom space by 2/3.

If we can nail our understanding of what to buy and when, this would unlock the potential to carry out operation “shrink the stockroom”. Order exactly what we need when we need it and not before.

The upsides would be:

  •  Move to a new process of ordering “just in time”
  • reduce stockroom size thus freeing up new floor space for customers worth £10,000+
  • reduce “out of stock” scenario by improving the buying process
  • order by need not assumption
  • reduce ordering time across the full year
  • reduce owning costly stock that may not sell which also takes up space
  • maximise available money set aside for buying products that sell
  • Reduce time lost by staff who have to hunt around a big stockroom
  • Heavily reduce human interaction which will reduce our cost per transaction and help us move to being digital by default
  • Allow retail manager to focus on other tasks